Tonight's the Night: Don't Spoil the Census - Opinion Editorial

Unlike a number of Australian politicians tonight, I will be putting my name and address on my Census forms.

I will be doing this because the Census is an important national information gathering exercise and the integrity of its data flows through to many things that government does. It also affects the way in which non-government organisations try to work out how to deploy their resources.

Taken every five years, the Census determines the allocation of important resources across communities and across socio-economic groups in Australia. I urge Australians to make sure those Census forms are filled in accurately.

Censuses are an important way of making sure that all of Australia is encapsulated, particularly for small and remote communities. It's really important that the Census reaches out and is able to give us a snapshot of our nation. If you look at things from a public policy standpoint – like how we allocate funding across schools, how we decide how to invest in targeted homelessness strategies, where we place employment programs – all of those programs are shaped to a large extent by the Census.

Why does the Census ask for our name and address? One of the things that it's possible to do when you have names and addresses is to do a match through to the death registry. In the previous Census, for example, matching names to the death registry allowed us to get a much more precise estimate of the Indigenous/ non-Indigenous life expectancy gap. It actually suggested that gap was nearer the order of two-thirds to half what we previously thought. We couldn't have done that without a name and address match.

Retaining names and addresses has happened for over a century. But what’s new this time is that the Turnbull Government has decided to more than double the period for which names and addresses are retained. In the past, this data has been retained for eighteen months. The proposal now is to extend that period through to four years. Unfortunately, the Turnbull Government has done a lousy job of explaining this change to the Australian people.

When the Census was their responsibility, I can't find any record of Kelly O’Dwyer or Alex Hawke having uttered a peep about these changes . The new Minister, Michael McCormack, waited a full week after getting this job before he sought a briefing from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Yesterday he dismissed community concerns as “much ado about nothing”. The community concerns are there because Michael McCormack didn't do his job in explaining the Government's policy change.

Regardless of how frustrated people are with the Turnbull Government's ineptitude, Australians should not spoil the Census. By boycotting the Census you take resources away from your local area, because the Census is used to allocate resources across communities. Accurate Census information is particularly important for vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. It really matters for our community that we get an accurate snapshot of Australia on Census night.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has opened up its (de-identified) data quite considerably over the course of the last decade. The benefits of that flow to the business and not-for-profit sector. But they rely on high quality information in the Census which we don't get if people are worried or frustrated as a result of changes that aren't being explained to them.

I urge Australians to fill out your forms properly and accurately tonight. The Turnbull Government has done a poor job of explaining its Census changes. But don’t make your neighbourhood suffer as a result of the Coalition’s rotten performance.

This Opinion Piece was first published in Business Insider on Tuesday, 9 August 2016

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